We are Asking the Wrong Question

Updated: May 10, 2019

I've counseled many prospective college students in my career and I've noticed that the vast majority of them are being asked the wrong question. The question they keep getting asked is: "What do you want to do for a living?" This question makes sense, right? First, discover what the student is interested in becoming, then provide advice about what major s/he should declare in order to get that job.

This logic makes some degree of sense if two things hold true. First, the prospective student is sure about what s/he wants to do for a living. Second, there is an academic major s/he can take that actually leads to that career. If a student knows she wants to be a Certified Public Accountant, for example, she should pursue a degree in accounting. Pretty simple, right?

But more often than not, this approach isn't all that helpful for two reasons. First, Teenagers' interests in careers are often very fluid. According to a recent survey of 165,000 high school juniors and seniors conducted by YouthTruth, only "45.7% of students agree that their school has helped them figure out which careers match their interests/abilities."

Hence, many students will not be able to give a reliable or consistent answer to the question, "What do you want to do for a living?" Furthermore, as a recent US News and World Report article explains, most careers don't have a clear bachelor's degree that leads to them. For example, if you want to be an insurance agent, what major is the right one to pursue? Should you get a degree in business, psychology, communications, or something else? The truth is, all of these majors will work as a foundation for this career.

Instead of, "What do you want to do for a living?" I think the better starting question to ask prospective students is: "Who are you?"


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